I began 1997 pretty optimistic about where the company was headed. Shawn Michaels was poised to challenge Sid for the WWF Title at the Royal Rumble, the Rumble match field was as competitive as it had been in years, and since the PPV would be in San Antonio, the company imported several Mexican stars to help flavor the card (at the time I didn't realize how poor these particular Mexican wrestlers were compared to the top-flight ones WCW had already scooped up - Vince was just a little late to that party).
The '97 Rumble gets an unfairly bad rap as far as I'm concerned. At the time I absolutely loved the show and felt it was quite stacked. Since multiple wrestlers were pulling double duty neither the Rumble nor the undercard had to be watered down. This was the first Rumble match in a while where the winner wasn't obvious going into it. Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Undertaker, Vader, Mankind, Owen Hart, and Davey Boy all seemed like viable options. I figured Bret would win to set up a 'Mania 12 rematch (I wasn't aware of the offscreen animosity that was building between Bret and Shawn), and honestly I was a little bummed that Bret would likely be winning back the Title. Bret was still a guy I underappreciated at the time and I really wanted to see Steve Austin elevated to a World Title contender and eventual Champion. Needless to say I was pleasantly shocked when Austin "stole" the Rumble win by sliding back into the ring after his elimination. This was all kinds of awesome, and totally fitting for his character to get a tainted win after such a gutsy babyface-like performance. It beautifully continued the angle of Bret becoming increasingly disillusioned and slowly turning heel.
|God, Sid even makes Sweet Chin Music look lame.|
Shawn Michaels won back the WWF Title in a brief but okay match, and all was once again right. It would be Shawn vs. Austin at WrestleMania for the WWF Title. Not so fast....
As it turned out neither man would be in the main event of the biggest show of the year. To rectify Austin's less-than-honest Rumble win, he and the three guys he eliminated illegally (Bret, Taker and Vader) would wrestle a no-DQ mini-Battle Royal to determine the real #1 Contender. Once again I figured Bret would win this and have his rematch with Shawn.
And then Shawn effed it all up.
On a special Thursday edition of RAW, Shawn announced that he had a knee injury and would have to drop the Title and walk away from wrestling indefinitely. And I was crushed. I really thought this might be the end of Shawn's career, at least for a long time. Of course he was back in action three months later and now the popular theory is that he either staged or exaggerated his knee injury to get out of dropping the Title back to Bret. To this day Shawn does still maintain that the injury was legit.
Regardless, WrestleMania 13 would be without a Shawn Michaels classic. The 4-way Battle Royal would now be for the vacated Title. Bret took it down and while that wasn't super exciting to me, I could at least get used to him being Champion again. Then the next night on RAW Sid won the Title back thanks to Austin's interference. This was just becoming absurd now. Four Title changes in the span of a month.
So now the 'Mania lineup would be Sid vs. Undertaker for the Title, and Bret vs. Austin in a submission match. I was excited about the latter, though I figured the submission match would go more or less like an I Quit match, which based on the two such bouts I had seen (the awesome Flair-Funk one in '89 and the abysmal Bret-Backlund one in '95) could be either great or terrible. As for Sid vs. Taker, well it was certainly no Bret vs. Shawn Iron Man match.
The WrestleMania 13 card itself was a strong overall show I thought. After a really slow start that included a forgettable 4-way tag match and a Rocky Maivia vs. The Sultan(??) Intercontinental Title match (Seriously, I didn't get what was so special about Rocky in the slightest at this point. As far as I was concerned the kid just didn't have it. Mick Foley has basically said the same thing about pre-Rock.), the heart of this show is pretty damn good. Triple H and Goldust put on a hidden gem of a midcard bout, Owen & Bulldog had a wild brawl with Vader & Mankind, Ahmed Johnson and the LOD had an even wilder brawl with the Nation of Domination, and Bret Hart and Steve Austin put on an all-time masterpiece of in-ring storytelling.
|What else can be said about this match? Epic work by both guys.|
Seriously, I don't know if a better match exists in terms of getting across a narrative. Going into the match Bret Hart was the fallen hero trying desperately to keep his white hat on amid utter chaos, while Steve Austin was the vile bully doing everything he could to tear down Bret's legacy. And then by the end of it Bret had snapped and become a ruthless heel while Austin showed incredible grit and resilience, winning over the entire crowd. Just brilliant stuff.
The Sid-Taker main event basically stunk, but it was notable for being The Undertaker's first meaningful Title win (he'd had it for six days prior to this). So the show ended on a nice moment.
Just to get this bit out of the way, I paid little attention to WCW in 1997 since every Nitro seemed to end the same way, with the bloated nWo roster destroying everything in sight. Hulk Hogan was the Champion for basically the whole year which I continued to find yawn-inducing. Sting was being positioned as the ultimate babyface challenger to take him down, and to their credit, the company got him over without having him wrestle a single match the whole year. I thought the Crow gimmick for Sting looked cool but it just struck me as a cheap ripoff. So yeah, I followed WCW just enough to keep up on what was happening, but I didn't enjoy any of their programming except the odd Benoit or Guerrero match.
Bret Hart's heel turn took center stage after 'Mania, leading to the formation of the new Hart Foundation - a monster stable consisting of Bret, Owen, Davey, Jim Neidhart, and Brian Pillman. I loved this lineup. Bret did such a tremendous job of playing the elitist villain, and I was such a fan of Austin's, that I actually kinda hated Bret for real.
The Bret-Austin rivalry became the centerpiece of one of the best long-term angles I've ever seen - the US vs. Canada feud. Read that phrase on paper and think about how dumb that sounds. But goddammit this was pure gold. Bret and co. declared war on the American wrestling fans and thus became villains here but babyfaces everywhere else. RAW would bounce back and forth between US and Canadian cities week to week, resulting in polar opposite crowd reactions. Seeing Canadian-based RAWs was absolutely surreal, as every American wrestler except Taker would get ripped apart by the fans. The onscreen hostility built to such a level I started to think maybe some of it was legit.
|This match effin' RULED!|
While I acknowledged that the Hart team had better wrestlers, I found myself still rooting for the Americans, mostly due to my Austin/HBK loyalty. Shawn ended up not being a big part of this angle because of recurring injuries, but Austin's stock rose huge during this time. Clearly he was a future WWF Champion, but first it looked like he'd be given an I-C Title run by beating Owen at SummerSlam. And then the unthinkable happened.
Austin was moments away from winning his first WWF singles championship, when Owen inexplicably botched a Tombstone piledriver, nearly breaking Austin's neck and leaving him momentarily paralyzed. Austin won the match and the Title using one of the worst-looking rollups of all time (in what was up until that point a brilliantly-worked match), and had to be helped to the back as he could barely stand.
|Dammit Owen, what were you thinkin'??|
Now at this point I knew WCW was crushing the WWF in the ratings on a weekly basis. I had no idea just how dire the situation had become, but I was fully aware of the implications of the company's hottest star suffering a career-threatening injury at the worst possible time. I was greatly relieved to see Austin back on RAW the next night, meaning the injury wasn't so severe that he had to be taken off the road. Honestly it's pretty miraculous that he only missed three months of action.
Ironically Austin's injury led to him becoming more popular than ever, and paved the way for the Austin vs. Vince feud. While I missed seeing him wrestle for a few months, it made for some pretty awesome television. This was the genesis of the babyface version of Steve Austin who defied authority to the end, and of the villainous but weasely corporate persona of Mr. McMahon, who attempted to exert complete control over all in his employ.
In 1997 Steve Austin became the most unconventional babyface the business had ever seen, and a massive tonal shift in the product was beginning to take shape. But the year had one final cataclysmic event in store that would send shockwaves through the industry.